Rufus Wainwright has been making music pretty much his entire life. It's almost as if he were destined to do it, considering his pedigree: Rufus is the son of folk singers Loudon Wainwright III and the late Kate McGarrigle; his sister, musician Martha Wainwright; his half-sister, singer-songwriter Lucy Wainwright Roche. That means Rufus grew up with music all around him, all the time. He played in the family band and in the mid-'90s, he went to Los Angeles to make his debut solo album, which ended up being his breakout. Since then, he's released several albums, he's written operas, he's lived in Canada and the United States. And more recently, he moved back to LA to make his new record, Unfollow the Rules. And LA is where he was when we recorded this session, our very first World Cafe in front of a live, virtual audience. My conversation with Rufus Wainwright is coming up in a moment, but first, recorded live at The Paramour Estate in Los Angeles, let's start with Rufus Wainwright with "Trouble in Paradise."
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Raina Douris: You're living in LA now and it's a big part of where this album came from. What is your history with Los Angeles?
Rufus Wainwright: My first records were made here. I was signed to DreamWorks Records in the early '90s and I came to California in a very luxurious situation because it was a big label and they were very excited, and so I got the red carpet treatment in Hollywood. So I'll always love it here because they accepted me at the outset. And this record, I decided to make again here; it just sort of created a bit of a bookend to my first record and complete a circle of sorts.
You're living in Laurel Canyon, which is a place with pretty illustrious musical history — singer-songwriters like Crosby Still and Nash, Joni Mitchell — and you mentioned in your behind-the-scenes documentary about making this new album that you weren't allowed to listen to Joni Mitchell in your house growing up. Could you tell us that story?
I adore Joni Mitchell's music now and I didn't mind it back then either, but my mother — the late, great Kate McGarrigle — was somewhat dubious of her musical taste. My mother was a real purist and was a bit folky and loved Peter Seeger and Bob Dylan, so Joni Mitchell was a little too "pop" for her. So we didn't listen to her a lot at the house. I think also, my mom was a little jealous of her success and her stardom, so it was partly warranted and partly not. But then later, many years later, my husband Jörn [Weisbrodt] became a huge Joni Mitchell fanatic and I was able to embrace Joni's music through his passion. And we subsequently became friends with her and I love her as a person as well. She's such a wonderful woman.
I was going to ask about that because she's famously pretty reclusive, but you did get to meet her and you are friends. How did that all happen?
Well it started around her 70th birthday, which was [seven] years ago. We were actually living in Toronto at the time. My husband was running a great festival called the Luminato Festival, and they told us there that "This year's Joni's 70th birthday, we should do something around that." And then at Massey Hall we had a concert with incredible guests, and she came up and she sang, which was amazing because she hadn't sung onstage for over 12 years. So [the friendship] started then and then wonderfully, we got to celebrate her 75th birthday in Los Angeles at the Music Center and hopefully we'll get to do her 80th and 85th and her 90th and 120th.
Unfollow the Rules is also your first pop album in eight years, and during that time since Out of the Game, you've been very busy with some other projects: You wrote two operas. What is your earliest memory of the opera?
I only got into opera music when I was 13, so it was a teenage thing for me. I think the first one that got my goat was Tosca, a great old recording with Jussi Björling and Zinka Milanov from the '40s. So I got into that, and then the first opera I went to was with my mom at The Met, we went to see a Verdi opera, Luisa Miller. During that opera, the tenor got sick. In the first two acts, he was trying to get through the part but he was losing his voice, and he was this old guy who was kind of overweight and really at the end of his rope. And then he lost his voice and in the second half, they replaced him with a young, handsome tenor with an amazing voice. It endeared me to the opera world, because it's just so ridiculous.
This would have been kind of the late '80s, when teenagers were listening to stuff like Guns N' Roses and U2 and REM, so what was it about opera for you? What drew you to it, why did you love it so much?
It spoke to me. And a lot of opera lovers have this similar experience where it's not so much them choosing the music, it's more the music coming out and grabbing them. And that occurred to me.
So this new album, Unfollow the Rules, it's a pop record. Did your experience writing two operas change the way that you approached writing a pop music album?
I don't know. I'm very cognizant of not deliberately trying to mix everything up and create kind of a hybrid. I want whatever I do to be pure and holistic. But I did know that in working a lot in the opera world, upon return to the pop world, I would gather some things along the way, some dust or spurs or something. I think it happened, but it wasn't deliberate in any way.
What was it that made you want to return to pop music?
It's my day job. [Laughs.] It's where I make most of my income, so that was one of the major reasons. And also I'm still in the game, even though my album before this was called Out of the Game. That was a lie. So I'm still willing to put myself out there.
I thought it was so interesting that you decided to record Unfollow the Rules in the same studio as your 1998 debut and you did mention that it kind of bookends your career. Why did you want to return to the same place that you started?
For one thing, they're some of the greatest studios in the world that I was returning to, and with some of the greatest musicians, these great LA session players. So I was excited just to do that on a musical level. And now I think that they're more valuable, historically, because with the way the music business is working and certainly now with the pandemic, who knows what business will be around [in the future]? And studios were in trouble even before this, so I wanted to continue the tradition.
It's interesting that you mention the idea of the pandemic. When we look back on even just making this most recent record, who knows what it'll be like down the line? But being in that same studio, how did you notice that things had changed when it came to making a record there two decades later?
I noticed that I was only in there for two or three days, as opposed to six months. [Laughs.] And we had to get everything done very quickly and couldn't order expensive Japanese food in between the songs, so it was just more sparse — which I think is actually good for the music. We were there just for the quality of the place, not the scene.
Is your preparation different when you know that you have a little bit less time?
Oh yeah, it takes a lot more preparation, a lot more strategies and stuff. The producer has to really — and Mitchell Froom did a fantastic job doing this — he really has to plan it out, kind of airtight.
I read you said that the lyrics on this album are your favorite lyrics you've written, which is pretty impressive after writing all of these albums and two operas. The next song that we're going to hear you perform is "Devils & Angels (Hatred)" — pretty provocative title. Is there anything lyrically you would like people to listen for in this song?
It's a song that I wrote years ago when I was faced with a very difficult human situation, something that we all go through. Whether it's going to court, whether it's being sick, whether it's dealing with death of a parent, as people we're faced with these fundamental moments where we have to really suit up for battle and win the fight. I wrote that song at that time, so it's about — not embracing hatred, but using it to your advantage. And of course, now with what's going on with the civil rights issues and the police issues, the hatred is out there and we have to come to terms with it and make it into something positive and something that doesn't destroy us. So the song is a bit of a call to arms, but ultimately to end the war.
On the album cut of that song, "Hatred," your sister Martha Wainwright sings backup vocals. Obviously growing up in such a musical family affected you as an artist, but now you have your own family — you're a husband, you're a dad. How has being a husband and a dad influenced your work?
I have an incredible amount of support when I come home from a tour or from making an album or when I'm lonely out on the road. I know that there's a couple of people who love me and are waiting for me, or who'll come out and visit, so I'm very blessed and thankful that's the case. I'm at the age now when people's parents are dying and there are folks who, once their parents die, they don't have that other soul in their life who loves them forever. So I'm very fortunate to have that.
Do they make their ways into your songs? I'm sure that they must.
No, they do. There's actually a requirement that I write a song about each of them on every album, so it's like a little game we play.
Which song is for whom on this one?
On this one, "Peaceful Afternoon" is for Jörn and "My Little You" is for Viva.
We're recording this conversation right now on June 8, and we originally spoke a couple of weeks ago right before premiering the behind-the-scenes documentary about your new album, Unfollow the Rules. That was back in May. And since we've talked, a lot of things have really changed. We're still in the middle of a pandemic; over the last couple of weeks, there have been protests across the country and around the world demanding an end to racism, to injustice, to police brutality, and I saw that you were out marching yourself in LA.
Yes. I haven't gone to any of the big ones, mainly because we have our daughter with us a lot and it's not kid-friendly at the moment. Near our house in the Valley, if you go over the other side of the hill and away from Hollywood, they do this protest every day on the corner of Ventura and Laurel Canyon Boulevard and it's just like the neighborhood and a lot of kids and it's during the afternoon, so I stopped there with my daughter a couple of times. And it was wonderful to do. It's very important to get out there, however you can.
What was your daughter's reaction to being out at the march?
She was kind of embarrassed of when I would start yelling. She said "Dad, you have to yell with everybody else — at the same time."
I heard that the title track was inspired by something that Viva, your daughter, said. Could you tell us where the phrase "unfollow the rules" came from?
Our daughter, Viva, one day walked into the house and said "Oh daddy, I just want to unfollow the rules," and then walked out. And I knew that I had a — I didn't know I had a record, but I had a lyric and that lyric turned into a song, and then the song turned into a record. So thanks, Viva.
What is that idea of unfollowing the rules? What does that mean to you?
Well it means two things. One, it means to reexamine the rules and the world and to try to make an informed decision over whether to keep going in that fashion. So that's how I read it. A more 21st century version is to unfollow, as in unfollow people on Facebook and Instagram, and cut people off which, as we know, never happens. Meaning no button gets rid of any information, it's all stored somewhere. So I go with the first definition mostly.
You've had such a varied career: 10 albums, two operas, a tribute to Judy Garland, an album based on Shakespeare's sonnets. What do you want to do next? Do you have something in mind already?
I'd like to make a French record. I'm feeling decidedly European these days.
I was brought up in Montreal and I speak French and it's just calling out to me to do something completely different from what I've done here with this album, which is very American and West Coast. I want to do something old and broken and French.